Darko Rundek is a Croatian musician who helmed the successful Zagreb rock band Haustor during the 1980s. He worked as a critic, actor, and theatre director. In the early ‘90s he left the strife of his native country and now he lives in Paris. The name of his group, the Cargo Orkestar, is a souvenir of the months he spent broadcasting sound collages from a ship off the Balkan coastline. Mhm A-ha Oh Yeah Da-Da is the Orkestar’s third album after 2004’s Ruke: la Comédie Des Sens and the live Zagrebacka Magla. It’s a theatrical CD with a cabaret heart. It can be blaring, cynical, adult—sometimes harsh, but also rueful-sweet with a controlled undercurrent of idealistic humanity.
Rundek wrote the lyrics to all of the songs, and he has a theatre-worker’s interest in character and setting. “I turn on my computer”, says the narrator in “Sensimilija (Jeff the Grateful)”, and behind him you can hear the small, rising musical hum that Windows makes when it opens. He talks about pouring himself a beer and you can hear the glass chiming and the liquid going in. These sound effects, which are the work of their sound man, Vedran Peternel, are never intrusive; they slide in cleverly and do their work without a fuss.
In “Helga”, the effects give the song’s narrative an added depth. Two strangers meet in Berlin and fall instinctively in love, though they’re unable to speak one another’s language. Into this song Peternel inserts recordings of speeches, one a speech in German, and the other a speech in American English from John F. Kennedy. “At least we never had to put a wall up to keep our people in,” he says snidely. The history of the city moves around the characters, making their love more difficult and unlikely than the lyrics on their own would suggest.
Then there is “Helga”‘s music, which sounds as if it would go well with an old black and white wartime movie, and the way the English-language narrator mentions John le Carré‘s Berlin spy novels—the city around this pair acquires new dimensions: it is a fictional construct as well as a piece of history, and it’s possible that the John le Carré reader is falling in love with a vision from his imaginary Berlin rather than a real woman. Berlin crops up in again in “U-bahn”, the song that opens the album, only this time we’re in the underground railway, a dark and threatening place, the upper circle of a rather thunderous hell.
Rundek is interested in the things that separate people and bring them together. You can see that well enough in the album’s subtitle. The “migration” in these migrations and love songs isn’t only physical, either. Sometimes it’s cyber. “Sensimilija (Jeff the Grateful)” is one of two songs on Mhm A-Ha that deal with the Internet. The other is called “Wannadoo”, perhaps in anti-hommage to the European broadband company of the same name. In Rundek’s eyes, the ‘net is a place where lonely people congregate to find communal warmth. But the warmth is a simulacrum; the people are still lonely.
“I’m coming to this forum quite often… I find this forum is a place to exchange impressions, you know, find friends, on the ‘net… and gradually I don’t feel so lonely…” says Grateful Jeff wistfully to his computer-friends. By the end of the song, he’s so thankful to have had an outlet for his feelings that he’s almost crawling. “Thank you very much… thank you very much, thank you, thank you, my name is Jeff…”. The Orkestar sighs luxuriously and the instruments heave and wash forward like a rolling tide.
The characters in “Wanadoo” are brasher. They’re the exhibitionists and strippers of the online world. “Today I gained six sisters and ten brothers!” Rundek yawls proudly, sounding like a man well-friended on MySpace. “I have a camera plugged into the computer! / Look at my ah-sss!” If there’s any funnier piece of burlesque around at the moment than this Croatian man in his fifties demanding that you look at his ass (and it’s ass, in this case, definitely not arse—it’s ass with a very hard a that emphasises the blunt, commercial aspects of the online sex trade), then I’d like to hear it. “I’m beautiful, so beautiful!” The instruments punch up the raunch: pa-dam-dam! Their playing here is a mixture of strip club, discordant tweaks, and a computerised woman’s voice reciting, “In-ter-net. In-ter-net”. It’s as bumpy as “Sensimilija (Jeff the Grateful)” was soft.
They’re a flexible bunch, the Orkestar. As well as soft and bumpy, they can also handle dramatic strings with a flyaway-bird piano (in “12 Ptica”), the tremble of an impending storm (in “Zvuk Oluje”), and clapping with mouth-harp boings (in “Kolo”). For “Highlander”, they manage to sound like a covert sweep of heavy metal, a low, growling storminess without the screaming guitars.
It’s fitting that the band mentions Berlin so often. This is, after all, a city with a history of cabaret and the capital of a country whose artists have flirted periodically and moodily with Romantic alienation. Mhm A-Ha Oh Yeah Da-Da has some of the jokey, skewed toughness that you get from Eastern European literature, a little surreal, but not magic realism. It’s a satisfying album, not one that makes you think, exactly, but an album that leaves you feeling a little sharper and keener for having listened to it.